Decibel’s Toxic Nostalgia – Exploring the Magazine’s Narrow View of Modern Death Metal

The following article is a collaboration between editors Jonathan Adams and Scott Murphy. Before we dive in, let’s make one thing clear—we and Decibel (“America’s only monthly

7 years ago

The following article is a collaboration between editors Jonathan Adams and Scott Murphy.

Before we dive in, let’s make one thing clear—we and Decibel (“America’s only monthly extreme music magazine”) agree that 2017 has been an exceptional year for death metal. Jonathan has highlighted countless fantastic death metal albums this year through both reviews and his recurring Death’s Door column, including excellent records from Impetuous Ritual, Sentient Ignition, Suffering Hour, Venenum, Winds of Leng and many others. However, you’ll notice a stark difference between Jonathan’s picks and Decibel’s own “Year of Death Metal” roster from their August issue, specifically the limited overlap and the significant age difference between each set of bands. Now, it’d be easy for us to chock this contrast up to differing opinions and call it a day. But we’re talking about the self-proclaimed voice of modern extreme metal pretending that the torchbearers of death metal haven’t changed over the past three decades, and a majority of the new bands worth spotlighting are either latter-year projects from genre veterans or young players emulating their idols with relatively little variance. We’re not here to question Decibel’s taste in death metal; we’re here to challenge the notion that a group of old men musing about the good ‘ol days are somehow the only people worth covering in a genre that’s bursting at the seams with fresh talent.

Albert Mudrian’s Nostalgia Lenses

Don’t just take our word for it—Decibel editor-in-chief Albert Mudrian kicks of the issue with a perfect summation of the magazine’s firmly fastened nostalgia lenses. Right out of the gate, Mudrian subtly paints newer bands with a broad, negative brush and admits is view that death metal was better back in the day.

Amidst the daily email barrage of new releases from Dinosaurpenis and Witchvagina, 25-year-old LPs from Obituary, Suffocation, Bolt Thrower, Immolation, Incantation and Repulsion help restore my equilibrium through warm and familiar fuzzies.

To be fair, inboxes for metal sites/zines like Decibel and Heavy Blog are constantly inundated with promos for subpar death metal, and anyone who scours Bandcamp’s new releases section knows just how deep you have to dig to find records worth your time. Yet, it’s easy to interpret Mudrian’s joking intro as a shot at younger death metal bands; you know, the ones with the goofy names, trendy haircuts and breakdowns galore. For starters, I’d be interested to hear Mudrian’s thoughts on how these fake band names are any more ridiculous than Cannibal Corpse and Dying Fetus, the latter of whom is featured prominently in the issue’s cover story. But more importantly, the subtext of this comment is a gross generalization. Surely the editor-in-chief of a prominent metal magazine doesn’t actually view the new wave of death metal bands as full of Dinosaurpenises and Witchvaginas, right? There’s certainly nothing wrong with spinning death metal classics, something we ourselves do on a regular basis. But it’s blatantly irresponsible to characterize modern death metal as a dichotomy of classic death metal on one side and ridiculous bullshit on the other.

This year has been different though, according to Mudrian, who continues with old school worship in a different light.

I’ve been playing a lot of new death metal records, most of which were written and recorded by many of the artists listed above. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “You’re just being nostalgic, you old fart.”

Yes, that is indeed what we’re thinking, and what your own words are clearly demonstrating.

That argument would have likely held up a decade ago, but today, most of these older death metal bands are three or four albums into their rebirth…Though we’re only halfway through it, it’s clear that 2017 is The Year of Death Metal—specifically, old guard death metal…Immolation, Obituary and Suffocation are releasing some of their best works three decades into their storied careers…Ultimately, thanks to the continued work of tireless progenitors, death metal’s reach is greater than ever in 2017.

We don’t think there is a fan of death metal that doesn’t agree at least with the final portion of this paragraph. Modern death metal owes its existence and much of its popularity to the dogged stubbornness of the subgenre’s earliest bands. We’ve both been worshipers at the altar of Immolation for as long as we’ve listened to death metal. We love these bands. We are thankful for them. In this we are agreed. But we find it hard to believe that out of all the new death metal records released this year (which, by the way, can be categorized as a whole hell of a lot) the only ones worth highlighting here are exclusively released by bands with decades of shredding and chugging under their belts. Obviously, not all of these bands are what we would define as “old,” nor is old a bad thing. Origin and Dying Fetus have been around for a minute, but certainly not as long as subgenre stalwarts like Incantation or Suffocation. But that’s a trifling aside. Each of these bands have been around for a significant period of time. Where are the youngsters currently melting faces and crushing skulls in the scene? Apparently, not on the mind of Mudrian or Decibel’s staff when they declared 2017 “The Year of Death Metal.” Which is, at best, a thoroughly discouraging oversight. At worst, it’s another example of an issue that has plagued the metal community for some time: a general disdain for progress and evolution. More on that later.

Graywashing Death Metal

Mudrian’s commentary may reek of nostalgia, but at least it prepares the reader for the tone of Sean Frasier’s cover story, “Long Live Death.” Although, to be fair, it’s the death metal veterans he interviews who provide inspire the bulk of obnoxious sentiments expressed in the piece. Still, the first groan comes from Frasier’s intro, which puts forth the following questionable assertion:

Over three decades later, death metal’s stronger than ever.

A good start, but just wait.

It’s still a genre powered from the underground up. But there’s also an undeniable veteran presence at the top. After new records from Carcass and At the Gates in consecutive years, we’re seeing what happens when death metal pioneers hit their so-called mature phase. Growing up doesn’t necessarily mean outgrowing the scene you helped create. 2017 has already seen: Immolation bending minds and time signatures with Atonement. Members of Bolt Thrower and Benediction celebrate life by mourning fallen comrades with Memoriam. Obituary crushing audiences across the globe while supporting their self-titled 10th record. Now, the following bands—all together for 15+ years—have top-shelf death metal prepped for fans before autumn’s approach: Suffocation, Decrepit Birth, Decapitated, Origin, Incantation, Broken Hope and Dying Fetus. then there’s Expulsion, jamming out the unofficial Horrified sequel we’ve begged for and deserve, goddamnit.

In all honesty, some of these new albums are actually quite good (with the notable exception of Obituary’s latest bland, self-titled snooze fest), and we’ve said as much in reviews and other columns. Origin (though their age is not as advanced as other members of the above group) in particular are finding new ways to innovate and perfect their tech death style, while Incantation is poised to blow some minds with an absolutely filthy record next month. In no way, shape or form are we arguing that these bands are no longer able to write amazing music, because in most cases, they certainly are. It’s a sheer thrill to see a veteran band revitalize what made them great by releasing albums decades into their career that feel fresh, impactful and true to the vision of the band.

But if you follow death metal in any capacity, you’ll recognize that all of these bands have been working in the genre for at least a decade, and those that haven’t—Memoriam and Expulsion—are comprised of members who have. This isn’t an ageist critique; as we just said, some of these bands absolutely deserve to be a part of this feature. But the problem lies with the fact that all of the bands have veteran rosters. The feature is completely devoid of young talent, unless you count Decrepit Birth and Origin, and even they’ve been around too long to truly be considered fresh blood.

It’s not like Decibel never covers young death metal bands, either. Well before this summer feature was likely even in production, the magazine had positively covered Artificial Brain, Ascended Dead, Contaminated, Father Befouled, Gorephilia, Lantern, The Ominous Circle, Replacire, Succumb and Undergang, to name a few. Surely at least one of these bands was worthy of a spot on Decibel’s list, right? what about Necrot, whom Mudiran said “propel the genre forward without abandoning its bloody roots” in his editor’s notes from this very issue (more on that later)? They released Blood Offerings in early June, a promo for which Decibel certainly received well before their deadline for this issue.

Now, we know what you might be thinking: can Decibel really be guilty simply due to omission? Well…yeah. If they’re going to tout themselves as one of the most (if not the most) prominent voices in modern metal journalism, they should exercise intense curatorial scrutiny that boils their recommendations down to the best the genre has to offer. Why, then, is their view of the “Golden Age of Death Metal” confined exclusively to relics of the past? Again, some of the bands they mentioned have released quality albums this year and deserve to be highlighted. But for them to insinuate that the old guard are the only death metal bands worth spotlighting and ignore the genre’s explosion of young talent is at best lazy and at worst and sign of how much they’ve been blinded by nostalgia.

Death Metal Veterans Yell at Clouds

As if this wasn’t problematic enough, things only devolve further as we dive deeper into the article and read what the death metal veterans in these bands have to say. Many of the following quotes take Mudrian’s subtle smugness towards younger death metal bands and warp it into outright contempt. And thanks to Incantation frontman John McEntee, this attitude is made abundantly clear early on:

We come from an era where you have to actually play your songs and practice as a band.

During what era in death metal’s history has this not been the case (or with most genres, for that matter)? If pressed to clarify, McEntee’s explanation would probably contain the terms “triggered drums,” “Guitar Pro” and “Rings of Saturn.” Let’s pretend for a moment that none of the veteran acts Decibel picked have ever used drum triggers or any form of studio tricks. The real takeaway here is simple—”Incantation has natural talent, younger bands do not.” We’d be interested to hear a counter analysis, but McEntee’s words seem pretty cut and dry, not to mention asinine and demonstrably false.

Yet, ironically, Incantation drummer Kyle Severn disproves McEntee’s claim with a description of the band’s recent surge in popularity.

Older bands like ourselves—grandfathers of death metal—are getting recognition for years of being in this scene and being one of the creators of this genre. There was a time in the late ’90s going into the mid-2000s that nobody gave a fuck about Incantation and old-school death metal.

And why might that be? Could it have anything do with the wave of “Incantation-worship” that’s swept through the death metal landscape, where new bands like Dead Congregation, Father Befouled, Portal and a decent chunk of Dark Descent’s roster introduced a new generation to Incantation’s filthy, suffocating style while also adding new ideas to the playbook? Let’s dub this the Meshuggah-effect, where it’s more likely a young metal fan has heard of a band like Periphery before the discover the actual progenitors of djent. In the same way, Incantation resurgence is certainly due to their talents as a band, but at least equally the cause of their style being expanded upon and introduced to a younger audience. Not bad for a generation of bands who can’t actually play their songs and doesn’t practice as a band, huh?

Suffocation guitarist Terrance Hobbs echoes these sentiments when he comments that some bands tell him “‘Hey, you influenced us.’ Then I listen, and I’m not sure it’s a compliment.” It’s basically an encapsulation of a promo video where Hobbs asks new guitarist Charlie Errigo about the current death metal scene before he and vocalist Frank Mullen interrupt him to talk about how the good ‘ol days were SO much better.

As the article caps out with a header titled “Keeping Death Metal Alive,” we’re left with some “words of wisdom” about these “so-called millennial bands” (actual quote) that can’t move the genre forward like the veterans can:

There are many great bands in this genre who are new [so-called] millennial bands, but for some reason they’re not breaking ground that the founding fathers haven’t already smashed. – Jeremy Wagner (Broken Hope)

I will say I think it would behoove the younger bands to dig deep to find their own voice instead of jumping on the bandwagons of tried and true forms to create their sound. To use my old-man sage voice, in the old days, each band sounded distinctly different, and that was a very good thing. – Matt Olivo (Expulsion, Repulsion)

These guys make it really difficult to respect our elders.

Let’s break this down piece by piece. Firstly, to say that younger death metal bands aren’t breaking new ground is a sign of profound ignorance or inherent bias (likely both). this year alone, Hadal Maw continued their progression of tech death norms; Ingurgitating Oblivion has woven avant-garde tech death epics; Succumb blended punk roots with an eerie, experimental approach to death metal; Ulsect aptly expanded upon a burgeoning movement of post-death metal…need we go on? We could, but we feel our point has been made.

The amusing underside of this claim is the idea that old school death metal bands were not only always distinct from one another, but continue to be original in their newest releases, two of the most laughable, nostalgia-ridden opinions expressed in this article. For starters, we ask you to head over to Rate Your Music and scroll through the chart for 1991 death metal, arguably the genre’s most important year. After you scroll past obvious staples like Death‘s Human, Atheist‘s Unquestionable Presence, Dismember‘s Like an Ever Flowing Stream, Autopsy‘s Mental Funeral, Suffocation’s Effigy of the Forgotten and so on, you’ll notice about two full pages of albums from bands you’ve likely never heard of before. That’s because releases in every genre from every year include an incredible amount of forgettable releases that never stand the test of time, even in pinnacle years from the genre’s history. Yes, the aforementioned classics are still unquestionably some of death metal’s most unique, crowning achievements. But to pretend that “in the old days, each band sounded distinctly different” is such a delusional thing to believe.

Even today, nearly all of the bands in Decibel‘s feature expressed similar philosophies that prefer a measured, tried and true approach, which shines through in their latest albums. McEntree of Incantation says he strives to make each album “distinctively itself, but hold on to the basics”; Olivo of Expulsion set out to create a devoted successor to Repulsion’s Horrified because he was “getting frustrated Horrified was never properly followed up”; Dying Fetus founder John Gallagher sticks to a simple motto of “keep it brutal”; Expulsion member Matt Harvey of Exhumed has a side project called Gruesome, a textbook, self-proclaimed “Death-worship” project; and Ross Dolan of Immolation says “We are not trying to reinvent the wheel, just create something fresh and original without crossing that line into experimental waters. I’m old school and follow the ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’ motto.”

All of this hardly sounds like bands eager to do anything they expect younger death metal bands to be doing. And as we’ve said many times throughout this article, that’s perfectly fine. Not every album needs to be a groundbreaking genre epiphany; as Relapse Records founder and president Matt Jacobson says in the article, you have some bands nowadays “who are innovators doing something new and fresh,” and others who aren’t original, “but they’re just doing it so fucking well it’s undeniable.” This dichotomy is standard of a healthy, growing genre, which makes these veteran bands’ opinions so frustrating. Why should young bands pushing the genre forward be ignored by prominent metal publications and scoffed at by veterans levying baseless comments, all while they’re the ones content with retreading the formula they’ve used for decades?

Why Death Metal is Actually Thriving

Personal opinion time, take it or leave it. In my (Jonathan) estimation, the metal community often has an issue with embracing that good old notion known as progress. We hear it all the time from metal publications, in review comments, and from our mothers (jk metal is the devil’s music ha ha ha love ya mom!). The argument runs a little something like this: The only good bands are the old ones, all tinkering with subgenre formulas is inherently evil, and all new material from bands less than a decade old is by default somehow less credible or less trve than the releases of genre forefathers. Obviously this line of reasoning isn’t exclusive to metal, but it is particularly pervasive in this style of music. It’s also, in my most humble estimation, straight up poisonous to the future of metal.

It’s important to call out this issue, because this type of thinking is blatantly evident in the piece we are discussing. Decibel completely disregards the vast majority of modern death metal’s 2017 output by only focusing on bands that have been around for decades who just so happen to be releasing new material this year. Even more upsetting, the bands featured in this piece seem to have some level of disdain for young bands trying to make their mark on the scene. This is the most profoundly debilitating strain of that poison to which we are referring. It is a counterproductive, childish and simplistically Luddite mentality that seems antithetical to the decidedly controversial and evolutionary bent of death metal. What about upstarts like Succumb and Winds of Leng dropping batshit insane debut albums? Or young progressive and technical death metal bands like NYN, Artificial Brain and Ingurgitating Oblivion that are pushing what we know as death metal into entirely new territory? These bands and others like them are releasing vibrant, powerful music that is controversial, subversive, brutal and worthy of discussion. They are discarded by both this article and the bands featured within it because, seemingly, they are “new.” That’s a god damn shame.

To be fair, the piece does make brief mention of some current death metal bands. In his editor’s notes we mentioned earlier, Mudrian had this to say on the topic of fresh faces in the scene:

Death metal continues to develop vital new talent like Blood Incantation, Horrendous and Necrot, who propel the genre forward without abandoning its bloody roots.

We agree with the above statement wholeheartedly. But on the whole, the article posits one sentence featuring talented new death metal bands. One. It is absolutely mind-boggling to me that a piece about 2017’s ascendance in the death metal chronology can straight up ignore an enormous swath of the most talented bands working in death metal today, and by golly am I riled up about it. Why the focus on only one component? Death metal isn’t relying on the old guard releasing new albums to ensure its survival after three decades of supremacy. It is thriving as a modern and evolving entity that is constantly churning out new bands (some great, some not-so-great) that are willing to revere and redesign the sounds that came before into something new and essential. Death metal is alive and well because it is willing to evolve. To learn lessons from the veterans and apply these techniques in new and sometimes subversive ways. It’s taking what came before and pushing it further. This, to us, is an indicator of a musical style’s vibrant nature and overall health. It should be celebrated, not ridiculed.

At this juncture, it should be pretty clear by now that we’re real big fans of all types and stripes of death metal. So much so that we dedicate a column each month to discussing nothing but new death metal releases from new bucks and wily old vets alike. In our evaluation of the year in death metal so far, it is to us plainly evident that the old guard is not by itself saving death metal from utter obscurity. On the contrary, newer bands to the scene are breathing fresh and utterly necessary life into the vital organs of this subgenre, making it currently one of the most diverse, experimental and talent-filled branches of the metal tree. The fact they are being ignored by influential mouthpieces for the music we love is incredibly discouraging. There are enough new death metal releases each month that we literally do not have the time to cover it all. Each month, without fail, we kick ourselves for missing some great release or another for coverage here on the blog. Death metal is thriving at a level unseen since the subgenre’s early days, with an absolutely insane amount of musicians banding together to create this music. Frankly, they should be recognized for it.

2017 is indeed “The Year of Death Metal,” but such a claim is incomplete without including the vast array of young bands that are working just as tirelessly as their predecessors to propagate the gospel of death. If the old guard spent less time nitpicking technology and studio doctoring and focused on encouraging talented young bands with tour inclusions and collaboration, we might have an even greater amount of excellent death metal than we already currently enjoy. If Decibel decided to cover smaller releases that are having a dramatic impact on the subgenre instead of only bands multiple decades old, perhaps this exposure could breed even greater levels of success for the subgenre as a whole. Old is not inherently good. New is not bad by default. Death metal is a multifaceted and defiantly original style of music that thrives on innovation and evolution. By taking that away, you strip the essence of the music: wild, uncontrollable, subversive expression and creativity.

Do yourself a favor: Listen to lots of death metal from 2017. Take risks. Listen to weird bands. Explore tech, progressive, brutal, old school and blackened death metal. There are dozens of albums released this year in each of these branches that are expertly crafted and passionately performed. We have mentioned many of them already in this piece, and we strongly urge you to check them out. If you like the old shit, the revival of legends, more power to you. We like it, too. But there is more to be heard than is contained in the piece we have commented on here. Lots more. 2017 is a truly legendary year for death metal for those willing to tap into its riches. The old guard is only a tiny portion of what makes this music great this or any other year. Too bad some of these legendary bands and Decibel were not able to speak to that in a piece that could have changed the trajectories of many young bands clawing their way through a crowded scene. Here’s hoping for better in the future.

Heavy Blog

Published 7 years ago